Despite heady anticipation, Saturday’s pair of qualifying finals did not disappoint in the slightest. Two compelling contests determined the final four of this year’s Super 15 and the cream has now risen right to the top. A pair of delicious domestic battles comes next. Semi-final weekend is just around the corner.
Chiefs v Crusaders
First up on Friday evening, all eyes will be fixed on Waikato for a simply mouth-watering all-Kiwi tie. Typically clinical in Christchurch against an ill-disciplined Bulls side, the Crusaders are clearly desperate to banish the pain of a final-hurdle stumble last campaign. However, some quality compatriots stand in their way.
As the pace-setters for the majority of the regular season and champions of the New Zealand conference, the Chiefs have every right to be confident. Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams possess box-office brilliance in midfield, and the latter will be especially keen to excel before heading off to Japan.
Elsewhere, Liam Messam and scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow are both in sublime form. Dave Rennie will hope that his charges have exorcised any mental demons lingering from back-to-back defeats – to the Crusaders and the Hurricanes – during a well-deserved week off.
For the seven-time champions, Richie McCaw continues to deputise for the injured Kieran Read at the base of a very solid scrum. Along with a dynamic duo of fantastic locks – Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano – the All Blacks’ captain fantastic will fight tooth and nail to establish a platform for his backs. From there, Dan Carter and co. can prosper.
Coming together for the second time in only three weeks, both teams will tussle for territory in the early stages. You can be certain though – given the reams of running talent on show – that the clash will explode into life at some point. The Crusaders emerged victorious last time, snatching a 28-21 win. I expect something similar. Crusaders by 5
Stormers v Sharks
Extinguishing the Australian challenge with a magnificent display at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday, the Sharks made a total mockery of my prediction. In a breathtaking first quarter, they counter-punched with lightning speed and ferocious power to dismantle a hapless Reds outfit. Now, though, a far more formidable defence lies in wait. The table-topping Stormers complete the semi-final line-up.
Newlands has proved to be an impregnable fortress for this season and, relying on a direct, uncompromising approach, Allister Coetzee’s men are unbeaten at home. As they keep getting reminded, though, they have not yet recorded a four-try bonus point in 2012. While their position in the overall log is a glowing testimony of a tenacious winning mentality suited to knockout rugby, now would be a fantastic time for Peter Grant to extract some spark from a backline brimming with Springboks.
On the evidence of last weekend, the Sharks have the balance of their selection sorted, especially up front. From the du Plessis brothers through to a tremendous back-row trio – Marcel Coetzee and captain Keegan Daniel were especially effervescent at Suncorp – the pack is a veritable powerhouse that will not take a backward step. Outside of that, half-backs Charl McLeod and Freddie Michalak are forming a great understanding.
Head coach John Plumtree has already expelled the notion that a tough fortnight of travel could affect the Sharks. “It is always nice to come home,” he told the club website. From a neutral’s standpoint, I agree with him. With national bragging rights at stake, this should be something special.
Two nail-biting fixtures between these two earlier in the year – a 15-12 victory for the Stormers in Cape Town and a 25-20 victory for the Sharks at Kings Park – confirms just how close this could get. For me, the visitors’ momentum holds the key. Sharks by 3